We were all shocked by the decision made in Central Falls, RI last week to fire the entire staff of its high school. For many of us who are “long in the tooth” there may even be a sense of deja vu if you look at this as an impasse in a highly charged collective bargaining process.
It appears that, as an alternative to the more draconian proposal of closing and reopening the school, a longer school day and tutoring were proposed, and the union rightfully sought compensation. We don’t know all the facts, but it appears that the superintendent disagreed and the school board, in essence, says, “a pox on all their houses – we’ll fire them all.”
I hope that we were also shocked that Secretary Duncan almost immediately rashly issued the equivalent of a profile in courage award to the Central Falls Board of Trustees. Let’s hope that he recants his comment as at best premature, or even a misstatement, as he did when he recently suggested that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that has happened to public schools in New Orleans.”
In any event, the Central Falls decision puts a face on what we can expect when decisions are made affecting the future of 5000 of America’s lowest performing schools. I was reminded of a meeting of an NCLB advisory committee convened by then Commissioner Ted Sergi, probably in 2002, to talk about how Connecticut would deal with the implementation of the new law. We were looking way down the road to when schools reach the restructuring sanctions. I recall reflecting to the group that day that there would be no greater test of our mettle as an education community than how we implement this provision. It seemed like a long way off, but here we are.
Secretary Duncan has committed to turning around 5000 of the lowest performing schools in the United States over the next five years. The good news is that there is serious money in the School Improvement Grant for perhaps the first time. The bad news is that the same administration that described NCLB as too prescriptive has put the prescription on steroids.
School turnarounds of the kind approved in Central Falls have little in terms of a track record, in fact, there is a body of evidence suggesting that, where tried, they have not worked. There is no question that these schools need a dramatic change of direction accompanied by a dramatic infusion of resources, but let’s hope that the most important lesson that we take from the unfortunate process in Rhode Island is that how we make these difficult decisions is almost as important as what we decide.
Connecticut thus far has taken a different approach to the difficult work of turning around underperforming schools. CEA, for its part, initiated the broad coalition that advanced the CommPACT Schools legislation: a demonstration that true collaboration can advance the ball.
The School Improvement Grant guidelines, adopted by the federal Department of Education, are intended to encourage draconian solutions, in spite of much comment pointing out the lack of a research base in support of these approaches. Charter school operators around the country have indicated a reluctance to get into the business of turning around the most difficult schools because they know how great the challenge is. Secretary Duncan, in his zeal to advance his agenda, damaged his credibility with teachers and their unions. Let’s hope that the shameful process in Rhode Island does not become the template.
We should know better and can certainly do better. Only time will tell.